Music : Jazzman Has Stayed Close to His Classical Roots

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Pianist Milcho Leviev is best known for his jazz playing, but he has never sloughed off the classical conservatory training he received as a youth in his native Bulgaria. So his recital Thursday for the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival is not quite the anomaly it may seem.

“I haven’t actually deserted the classical field at all,” Leviev, 56, said in a recent phone interview from his home in North Hollywood. “I’ve been obscure, so to speak, but I’ve been always practicing. As a matter of fact, people give me funny looks when I start playing Chopin etudes before a jazz gig for a warm-up: ‘He’s trying to impress by playing classical music,’ they say.

“That’s not the point. I have had classical training (and) experience. I’ve conducted orchestras way back in Bulgaria. But it’s also true I haven’t given a (classical) recital since I came to this country, which was in 1971.”


At Thursday’s recital, Leviev will play the music of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Ravel, Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov and some of his own pieces.

Leviev fell in love with jazz as an 18-year-old and began playing in small groups in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. But the freedom inherent in jazz and the repression inherent in the Communist political system didn’t coexist easily. There was a relatively more open period in the ‘60s until the uprising in the Czech capital of Prague in 1968, which brought the lid back down--hard.

Leviev defected when he had a chance, coming in 1971 to Los Angeles to play in the Don Ellis Orchestra, with which he remained for eight years. He also played with such musicians and groups as Billy Cobham, Free Flight and Art Pepper and recorded with Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau, among others.

“I had to dig into the real (jazz) more,” he said. “Classical I had already studied, worked on and continued to work on. What I needed was to explore jazz more.”


Playing jazz and playing classical music are “very different experiences,” he said. “Yet there is a similarity because you improvise in the classics, too. Not by changing the texts, but you change the moods. Certain passages by Bach, or anybody, could be played at any possible dynamic, tempo and any possible deviation from the tempo. That’s the same as jazz, isn’t it?

“The only thing (with jazz) is, you have to come up with the notes, the musical text. Here, the most important thing is behind the text . . . the mood. You try to generate the mood, even to send a message, even a rational message. That could be improvised as well.”


In fact, “in classical music what sometimes turns me off is the mentality, this unbelievable reverence to the composer, in terms of what is on the paper,” he said. “What’s on the paper is insufficient. It’s a typographical map.”

So with Bach, he feels free to add octaves or to double chords because Bach was writing for an instrument--a harpsichord--that was more limited in range than a modern grand.

“The ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ is for keyboard, which means ‘any keyboard,’ ” he said. “We know Bach had a glimpse of the contemporary piano (of his day), which was even not close to a contemporary piano today. . . . He tried it, but he found the range too limited. . . . So if you try to add an octave or double a chord or play the ornaments in your own way, not necessarily the canonic way, it’s OK.

“I improvise at the time I play. But if you want to improvise in depth, you have to explore different ways of improvisation. That means you have to practice.

“Dave Brubeck, I think, said: ‘The best improvisation is the well-rehearsed improvisation.’ That makes sense to me.”

Leviev will play half the Thursday recital by memory and half from reading the scores, “especially my pieces.”


“My pieces are hard to play,” Leviev said. “I’ve written a suite called ‘A Little Old-Time Music,’ but these pieces were originally written for orchestra. I made a piano transcription that is very tricky. I guess I could memorize it, but there are parts that are not in the piano transcription.”



He also will play music by Vladigerov, who lived from 1899 to 1978.

“He was my composition teacher,” Leviev said. “He’s a pretty famous composer in Europe. He never came to the United States, but he worked in Germany. He was the composer of the Max Reinhardt theater (in Berlin). For 10 years, he was the staff composer there.”

Vladigerov is considered Bulgaria’s major composer, Leviev said.

“Bulgaria, until the mid-19th Century, virtually didn’t have classical music. It was under the Ottoman jurisdiction for 500 years. So classical development started in the mid-1800s. Composers before him were kind of primitives, so to speak, in a good sense. Some of them were very talented people, but they didn’t read music like this gentleman did.”

* Pianist Milcho Leviev will play works by Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Ravel and other composers on Thursday in the McGaugh School Auditorium, 1698 Bolsa Ave., Seal Beach. 8 p.m. The free recital is part of the 20th annual Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival. (310) 596-4749. *

VIDEO PREVIEW: The Orange County Philharmonic Society will host a free preview of its 1994-95 season on July 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Videotapes of some of next season’s performers will be screened. Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served. (714) 553-2422.